Libraries: A New Frontier for Ethiopia

The role that libraries in Africa could play in reducing poverty has not been sufficiently recognised and hence the necessary policy development and investment in the library network have not yet been made. Policymakers and donors, recognising the link between poverty reduction and literacy, have given due attention to textbooks in policies to increase literacy and student achievement levels.

Yet textbooks are the beginning of the solution, not the complete answer. Libraries sustain literacy and do so on a reuse basis providing a cost-effective means of support for a whole community of readers who seek information for tackling their own problems. While the West manufactures and ingests a glut of information every day, the vast majority of Africans subsist on very little. Media is underdeveloped, internet access is limited to a privileged few, and the most basic tools of literacy and learning, in the form of books, must often be shared between six or more pupils.

Few schools have a school library and many regional states are yet to fully grasp the importance of public libraries in providing literacy and ICT programmes to rural communities throughout Ethiopia. In today’s global information society, non-literate people are at a permanent disadvantage unsure of their rights, unable to fulfil their potential and unable to play a full part in society. They are disempowered. Literacy is a right and a capability that is fundamental to overcoming poverty.

Both public and school libraries have a vital function in supporting learners to acquire, maintain and develop their literacy. Yet most poor communities in Africa do not have access to a library and those that do exist are almost always poorly resourced. This damages educational outcomes for many. The report on the availability of books and learning materials in Africa produced for “Education for All”, in 2000, commented that, “As the decade came to a close, school libraries were said to have the lowest of priorities in educational spending.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, adult literacy levels are now 61pc, according to data from the UNDP. But without regular use literacy skills can be lost within a few years. A large percentage of participants in adult literacy programmes lapse into illiteracy within just a few years if they do not have access to follow-up support and appropriate reading materials. In addition, poor quality education and shortages of reading materials always condemn many children to finish basic education with very limited literacy skills.

To create literate environments, individuals need to be surrounded by accessible written information, for learning, research, skills development, leisure or immediate practical purposes. Strong literate environments are underpinned by thriving local publishing, bookselling and media industries. These are places which help ensure people get hold of locally relevant materials, including local languages, and local information that reflects local culture, traditions and needs. This is where public libraries have an important role to play, with their mandate of free and universal access. But, in the absence of libraries and related institutions, human progress on all fronts is stifled.

Development information, in particular, can enable people to fight poverty, deprivation and illiteracy. Rural and urban poor communities are better able to tackle problems and introduce social changes if they can get information relevant to their needs and interests. As we usher in the new Ethiopian year of 2009, let us all pull our resources together and invest in our future and that of our country by investing in public libraries.

Governments, aid donors and development agencies have a responsibility to counteract information shortages and illiteracy, to empower people to act as agents of their own development. Our joint goal should be to enable all people to have the opportunity to realise their knowledge potential through gaining literacy and relevant information.

“Education is the greatest equaliser in today’s global village,” said Tewolde GabreMariam, Ethiopian Airlines group CEO.

And it is only when all Ethiopians have access to adequate reading materials can we all hope to gain and maintain literacy skills for life.

The legacy of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, will always be remembered for, among other things, the building of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Hence, in order to see the building of an Ethiopian great society that is at the forefront of science and technology, there is need for a great leap forward in literacy. It is not a utopian idea if in a couple of years Ethiopia becomes a giant and a leader in the ICT sector in Africa, as we push on to become a middle income economy. But that will need an informed, educated and highly skilled population.

All great leaders have contributed to humanity in one or more fields that they excelled in or provided visionary ideas that were revolutionary at the time. As the English writer William Wordsworth once said, “history is lived forward but is written in retrospect, we know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it is to know the beginning only.”

Perhaps it would be wonderful if Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn added to his already busy schedule the construction of multi-storey complex library buildings in all big and small cities of our country. This will add to the aesthetic beauty of our towns and cities, while also providing educational access to all walks of life with ICT at the centre stage of all this progress. He can choose his legacy now, and not later.






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